When people hear the name Phillip Ralls, they often hear it said in conjunction with two top bridle horses — Call Me Mitch and Dom Dualuise. Though Ralls has been in the industry for many years and ridden several horses to top placings, those two great, long-showing bridle horses bring him the most recognition.
Ralls and Dom Dualuise (Dual Rey x Smart Little Xx x Smart Little Lena) first earned a check in 2010 for owner Christian Larson and continued winning through 2017. Call Me Mitch (Metallic Cat x Miss Hickory Hill x Doc’s Hickory) took Ralls to the pay window in 2014 for owner Estelle Roitblat, and continues to show today.
It is no easy task keeping a reined cow horse fit, injury free and willing to do its job in the show pen, though. Many owners, trainers and riders know that “show-smart” horses can make getting through a run challenging, so Ralls employs a program to keep his horses in top shape while letting them enjoy riding time.
“I’ve had good luck not having a lot of injuries, and that has to do with those horses staying fit, a good horseshoer, good vet, good feed program and good help to keep the horses cared for,” Ralls said. “These great horses don’t come around every day. Those horses are spoiled, and deservingly so, because they are special.
“One of the things that has helped me keep these older bridle horses going is that throughout their show careers, I’ve had the goal of keeping them fit. We don’t go to a big show then come home and get soft again.”
Fitness can mean the horse is given a work-out in the sandy river bottom below Ralls’ Paso Robles, California, facility or that it is taken to a local ranch branding. Ralls uses a variety of techniques to keep his horses sharp enough to do their best.
Just like people, each horse is an individual, Ralls said. In order to keep his horses fit to work, he capitalizes on each horse’s strengths to create a program that builds muscle and endurance.
“I really approach riding each one as an individual and take that horse’s strong suit and allow them to bring that extra flair to the table,” he said. “I feel like a big portion is to allow the horse to be an individual, but find a happy medium of how they want to do their job and how I need them to do it, and what is the most consistent way we can accomplish our job.”
Part of that consistency is maintaining a high level of fitness, regardless of if the horse is preparing for an event next week or in a few months. When a show isn’t on the immediate horizon, Ralls opts to ride his horses for a workout rather than a training session.
“Throughout the year, the horses I show don’t get schooled daily. I prefer to wait until I am closer to an event and need the horse to be in show mode,” Ralls explained. “Riding outside helps them a lot, everything from long trotting out through the river to the pasture. On the river, the sand helps keep the horse fit, and it is a situation where I can give the horse its head and allow it to move out.
“Other times, I use an older horse to pony a young one and get miles on them that way,” he continued. “When I give lessons, I often camp out on the older horse. I’m not calling on the horse to work hard, but I might bump a cow out there for the horse to work during another lesson. That lets the horse know it can be around cattle and not make a big deal of it.”
In cow horse especially, any situation where Ralls can involve cattle as a teaching aid is beneficial. He often uses Dom Dualuise, called “Hef” around the barn, to bring in cattle for customer lessons, which allows Hef to be around the herd in a low-pressure situation.
“There is doing the basics, like bringing in cattle, where the horse is still doing a job but doesn’t have to fire on all cylinders. Anything with cattle keeps a horse sharp. It is good for horses and for people to have down time,” he said. “I try to maintain good fitness where the horse gets rode or [turned] out and worked six days a week, regardless of if the horse is showing or not. They are not always hard miles but just keep the horse moving.”
When it is time to ramp up the activity to prepare for an event, Ralls’ relationship with a horse plays a big role in when he begins to increase his demands. With Call Me Mitch, Ralls knows how far out from a major show, like the World’s Greatest Horseman, to start working on each of the four events.
“I know I need to regulate the horse’s feed and add extra grain when I start working the horse with more intensity. Sometimes, that is adding an [underwater treadmill] workout and more time [in the sand] at the river,” Ralls said. “I want the horse to recover faster and have more air to be fresh and ready to go. When you have to do three and four events in a day like World’s Greatest, it comes down to who has gas in the tank.”
While fitness for the arena is the goal, Ralls also knows that each time an older horse goes out, it is one less ride it could have in the future, so he focuses on making every mile count.
“When a horse has already mastered the training, it comes back to the basics of slow turnarounds or working the flag,” he said. “I want to save as much mileage as possible on those older horses and make every ride count.”
Even a top reined cow horse and EquiStat Elite $1 Million Rider need a break from the day-in, day-out arena activity. Ralls capitalizes on the opportunity to take his horses out of the norm and into a true working horse situation whenever he’s able.
“I have a few friends that manage big ranches around here and when it is time to wean calves or sort cattle, they let me bring out a few horses. It is good for those horses to be used and enjoy the different view,” he said. “They like their job, and I want my horses to continue to like their job. I don’t get to go to many brandings a year, but it is good for them to have real-world experience.”
Before he takes a horse to brand, Ralls will use his Hot Heels — a dummy steer pulled by a four-wheeler — to prepare the horse to rope. In a branding pen, the horse works around other horses and people, so the active environment is vastly different from the show pen.
“‘Mitch’ really liked the branding the first time. Before we branded, I roped in the arena on the Hot Heels and had steer-stopped on him. The branding pen can be chaotic, but it was another day at the office for Mitch,” Ralls said. “He took it in stride, and I could see he enjoyed being able to drag calves to the fire, and head and heel.”
Out-of-the-norm activities keep older horses interested in their job, Ralls explained. Instead of asking a horse to run and stop every few days, he will employ his roping dummy to work on tracking a cow, stopping and rating. Ralls even works on circling with the dummy steer because he can regulate the speed and direction.
“I feel like the majority of the good horses I’ve had the pleasure of riding are naturally competitive animals. Horses are constantly being competitive, even as babies. They take the Hot Heels like a game as much as we do as riders,” he explained. “Working the Hot Heels gives you a chance to turn the horse loose without having to micromanage them, and it is a lot more educational than working on only reining maneuvers.
“It is more about having a relaxed horse,” he added. “I want that horse to learn to track and rate on a loose rein. It is one way we make it a game, and we have had a high success rate. It definitely lets pressure off the horse more so than working a real cow.”
Using every opportunity to get a horse out of the arena or to do a different task gives Ralls’ show horses a mental break that helps ensure the horse stays fresh for the show pen. Combined with a regular fitness plan, the program helps ensure long-term success for Ralls’ bridle competitors. ★